A year ago (summer 2015), I wrote this article after I finished teaching a university summer-term course on the history of climate change. I developed this course from scratch; there was no model for this kind of course. You’ll read there about what I learned about climate change from that experience. This year, summer 2016, I taught the course again, except this time in an online format–no classroom–and it was twice as long, taking up nearly the entire summer. This was every bit as gratifying and fascinating an experience as teaching the original course. Thus, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on the second time around, as sort of a “sequel” to my previous post.
One of the most important things I learned this time was how quickly the field changes. Although the central part of my course involved familiarizing students with the history of climatic changes from the end of the last Ice Age to the present episode of anthropogenic global warming, I was surprised by how much material I had to add, update or alter, especially in the later stages of the course. When I taught the class last year, the Paris climate agreement had not yet been signed, Jim Hansen and his team of researchers had not yet released their groundbreaking study on ocean-atmospheric feedbacks, and the idea of the global warming “pause” in the late 1990s–massively distorted by denialists–still had some currency. This year I had to devote significant attention to Paris, I used Hansen’s video abstract as an assigned material, and new data has suggested that there never was a “pause” in temperatures of any kind. Furthermore, the revelation of the ExxonMobil scandal, where documents came to light proving that the oil giant knew about global warming in the 1970s and deliberately pursued a policy of denial and obfuscation, had to be included in my course as well. Things change very fast.
The data from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) continues to come in, and it all points in the same direction: we’re causing massive and perhaps irreversible changes to Earth’s climate.
The challenges of translating what was a sit-down course into an online format were also very illuminating. For this year’s class there was no classroom, no group discussions and my lectures had to be delivered via YouTube. Focusing the attention of the class on specific issues from the readings proved harder to do in an online format than in person. Suffice it to say I made use of an online discussion forum system to talk about the readings, which I found actually resulted in the students doing the readings much more often than in a sit-down course. I also had to learn to become something of an expert in video production! For hours a day, from late May until the first week of July, I sat in a small recording studio on my campus, talking to a webcam about climate change. The image of the webcam’s eye staring at me was not unlike the glass eye of the HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was an odd way to teach, but when the class was over the students said they really appreciated the personal touch of the videos. In many online courses you never see the professor at all.
Most interesting were my students’ views, when the course was over, about climate change and their sense of what they learned. So far as I could tell there were no mind-made-up deniers in my class. But several did tell me that, before entering the course, they knew little about climate change and did not have strong opinions on it one way or another. Those students emerged from the course not only understanding what climate change is and why it’s such a threat, but also how urgent and important it is to deal with it. One student referred to a conversation she had, the weekend after the course ended, with an alum of our university about environmental issues, and she was gratified to be able to speak knowledgeably about the issue of climate change. Another insisted that this course was the single most relevant class, in a “real world knowledge” sense, that he had taken in his university career. I can’t describe how wonderful these things are for a teacher to hear. It makes me feel like all my effort this summer was totally worth it.
Popular scientist Bill Nye has been combating climate change denial for several years now, such as in this recent challenge to a denialist weather forecaster. There are signs that denialism is dying out.
I also learned an interesting thing about climate change denialism: it’s dying, and it’s dying rapidly. All of my students this year were in their early 20s, “Millennials” as they are termed in the press. After doing a unit on climate change denial, which included reading some of the ExxonMobil documents, all of the students believed that organized denialism as we’ve seen it in the past few decades is a losing strategy and that its influence is dwindling. Organized denial has generally followed the model of the campaign tobacco companies used in the 1980s and 90s to try to get the public to doubt that cigarettes cause cancer. In the long term that strategy wasn’t very successful, and climate change denial isn’t either. Oil company profits are down. The coal industry is literally dying. The voices of denialists are magnified artificially by the media and political apparatus, but it’s clear that few “real” people believe denialist arguments anymore. While climate change denial will never totally go away, I’m confident that, in only a few years, it will be relegated to the same kind of lunatic fringe where believers in things like “the Moon landing was faked” and “9/11 was an inside job” dwell. It may surprise people how quickly this transformation occurs.
In short, there is a great deal of room for optimism about climate change. It’s an issue that resonates among young people, and once they understand what it is and they have learned something about its history, they’re eager to engage with it in creative and incisive ways. This is a breath of fresh air that came for me, personally, at the right time; you may recall I wrote this rather gloomy article last winter lamenting that it’s so hard to be positive amidst the terrible daily news of climate change. This summer’s class has also cemented, I think, my professional reputation as being identified with this field in history. Whatever I do going forward after my Ph.D. is completed, I’m now virtually certain that it will have at least something to do with climate change. The endless summer into which humans have unwittingly plunged the world is a future we must come to understand and deal with on rational terms. After this summer, I think I’m more ready than ever to make that journey.